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Climate Change, Society and Water: A Historical Perspective

Congress: 2008
Author(s):
AbstractAppropriate understanding of current perceptions of climate change and adequate assessment of its impact on society, as well as considerations of how to cope with potentially devastating consequences of climate change require a clear formulation of the dynamic interactions between climate change and water resources. People depend for their livelihood on available water resources which are directly or indirectly linked to rainfall. In addition to the impact of other climatic factors (e.g., temperature), water resources available to humanity is governed by geological, topographic, and geomorphological factors. However, availability of water, as historical records reveal, has been vastly influenced by human efforts. In fact, we may envision civilization as the outcome of the means by which society harnessed, processed, and utilized available water resources. From simple methods of water harvesting to hydroelectric power, human societies have managed to procure more water than locally available and to use water for the production of food, economic goods, and services. Check dams diverted water to irrigate marginal lands, the shaduf lifted water to higher grounds, the qanat extracted water from groundwater in mountainous regions to deliver it to lowland fields, the water mill transformed industry, the construction of canals unified countries, steam powered a transpiration revolution, and hydroelectric power provides humanity with a major source of energy. Given the primacy of water for basic necessities, goods and services, unanticipated water scarcities generated by naturally induced variables have posed in the past severe challenges to ancient civilizations and have led in some cases to their demise, but have in the most part contributed to the emergence of new technologies, practices, and ideologies that made it possible for people to surmount water crises. Nevertheless, with each breakthrough in water management, societies had a tendency through time to expand their water demands beyond what is feasible under existing conditions. Societies have thus always been exposed to water crises not so much as a result of naturally induced changes, but because of increasing rates of consumption and rising cost of water procurement. From a few millions who roamed the earth before agriculture was invented as a means to increase food productivity by making use of rainfall, rivers, surface runoff, and springs through the stage of urbanization and state formation, and finally to the present, when local water resources are needed to feed more than 7 billion human beings, provide for the welfare of tens of millions in crowded cities, and in the mean time supply expanding industrial production, the stress on water resources is unprecedented. Climate change is endemic. Whether induced by human beings or a result of natural processes, climate change is a fact of life. The current problem, from a historical perspective is a function of accelerating demands that are fast exceeding local supply. Historically, appropriate solutions must consist of a combination of technological innovations and re-organization of water allocation and managerial policies. In the long run, inappropriate use of water resources, inequities and limited access to freshwater resources are far more damaging than climate change.
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